A hard afternoon today. The fog is settling in over my brain a bit. I knew it probably would be. Today is, as they say, the first day of the rest of my life. Today is the first day that’s not being set aside to deal with death and grief, or the recovery from it. Today is the first day that I have to just live my life, and start moving forward through the coming days and weeks and months while managing my grief. That’s hard.
I’m realizing that there are some important differences between managing grief if you have a tendency towards depression, and if you don’t. If I didn’t have a tendency towards depression, if I hadn’t already been having a depressive episode when Dad died, I might be more likely to let myself spend a day or two in bed or on the sofa, just resting and recovering. But since I’m dealing with depression as well as grief, I know this is a bad, bad idea. I know that I need to get up, get dressed, leave the house, get things done. I don’t need to get as much done as I usually do; I don’t need to be as driven and workaholic as I usually am. Hell, if all I do is get up and get dressed and leave the house and then sit in a cafe all day reading Carl Sagan, that’s okay. But at moments when I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and like all I want to do is lie down on the sofa and flip on the TV or sleep, I absolutely cannot do that. That will not make me feel better. That will make me feel worse.
This is pissing me off. I really, really, really want to just lie down and sleep. I really want to be a person who, when they’re grieving, can just lie down and sleep for a couple of days, and come out of it feeling rested and refreshed.
However. That being said.
I am, once again, feeling immense gratitude for my years of experience in skeptical thinking and living; my years of understanding about cognitive biases and the importance of evidence-based decision-making and the fact that my brain isn’t always right about everything. At this point, after all those years, knowing that my brain isn’t always right has become natural, almost a reflex. The humility of skepticism is helping me manage this, is helping me do the things I need to do to take care of myself, even when I don’t feel like it and can’t see the point.
You know, I’m struggling to say what I mean here, and I already said it once in my piece Depression, Rationality, and the Difficulty of Perspective, so I’m just going to quote myself:
Because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, I am steeped in the habits of rational thinking. I’m not a perfect rational thinker, of course — nobody is — but I know about cognitive biases. I know how emotions color perception. I know that the perspective I’m seeing the world through at any given moment is not necessarily the most accurate one. I know that I’m not always rational… and I can take steps to counteract this. And because of my participation in the atheist/ skeptical/ rationalist communities, these habits of thinking — and of acting — are becoming second nature.
Which makes it much easier to act in a rational manner to take care of my mental health… even when I can’t immediately see any reason to.
When I’m feeling depressed, and am feeling entirely unable to see the possibility that anything could ever make me feel different… I can still know, rationally, that this is not the case. And because I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind, I find it much easier to take action to make myself feel better. I can make myself get up off the sofa and go outside: not because I can feel any point to it, but because I know, intellectually, that there is a point. I can drink a big glass of water every couple/ few hours: not because I have any appetite or desire for it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will help wake me up. I can take a long walk before I go to work: not because I take any pleasure in it, but because I know, intellectually, that it will alleviate the depression. Etc. I’m in the habit of trusting my rational mind… even when I don’t have any immediate ability to see the point.
Which is why, after a hard afternoon, I had a pretty good evening. Made it to the gym — not wanting to go, not feeling like going, not having it in me to do anything but stay at home and sit on the sofa and eat and watch TV and play with kitties — and was so, so, so, so glad I did. I fucking love lifting weights. Lifting weights is one of the great sensual pleasures of my life. And vigorous exercise is one of the best natural anti-depressants I have. Vigorous exercise wakes me up, breaks through the fog. Vigorous exercise makes me feel like I’m actually present in my life. When we went home afterward and made a healthy dinner and sat on the sofa and petted kitties and watched Fashion Police, it didn’t feel like I was hiding from the world, or sinking into torpor — the way it would have if I’d just stayed home. It felt like… well, it felt like our life. It felt like a regular Monday evening with Ingrid, where we go to the gym and then come back and enjoy our home and each other.
And I was able to go to the gym, in large part, because I was able to trust my rational brain. I was able to trust the part of my brain that said, “I know you don’t feel like you want to do this… but trust me, you do. This will make you feel better. Remember that you don’t always feel this shitty, and that going to the gym is a pretty reliable way of breaking through the shit. Remember that in the years you’ve been going to the gym, there have been maybe half a dozen times when you’ve regretted going, and every single one has been when you’ve been profoundly sleep-deprived… which you aren’t now. So just put one foot in front of the other, and go.”
Thank you, rational brain!